Role of Extracellular Matrix Proteins in Breast Cancer Metastasis

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Both epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and mesenchymal-epithelial transition (MET) are linked to metastasis via their ability to increase invasiveness and enhance tumor-initiating capacity. Growth factors, cytokines and chemotherapies present in the tumor microenvironment (TME) are capable of inducing EMT, but the role of the extracellular matrix (ECM) in this process remains poorly understood. Here, a novel tessellated three-dimensional (3D) polymer scaffolding is used to produce a fibrillar fibronectin matrix that induces a EMT-like event that includes phosphorylation of STAT3 and requires expression of β1 integrin. Consistent with these findings, analysis of the METABRIC dataset strongly links high-level fibronectin (FN) expression to decreased patient survival. In contrast, in vitro analysis of the MCF-10A progression series indicated that intracellular FN expression was associated with non-metastatic cells. Therefore, differential bioluminescent imaging was used to track the metastasis of isogenic epithelial and mesenchymal cells within heterogeneous tumors. Interestingly, mesenchymal tumor cells do not produce a FN matrix and cannot complete the metastatic process, even when grown within a tumor containing epithelial cells. However, mesenchymal tumor cells form FN containing cellular fibrils capable of supporting the growth and migration of metastatic competent tumor cells. Importantly, depletion of FN allows mesenchymal tumor cells to regain epithelial characteristics and initiate in vivo tumor growth within a metastatic microenvironment.